Tuesday, April 10, 2012

the measure of a man

T.S. Eliot may have measured his life in coffee spoons, but I prefer Scotch. Besides the fact that I normally just pour my coffee from the can straight into the espresso maker, I only have a few coffee spoons anyways, so it would be awfully hard to measure anything longer than a day or two with them. I suppose I could line them up, and then keep picking up the last one and putting it in front of the first one, but that would be silly. I think instead it's easier to use something you are actually going to accumulate over time, which is why I'll measure my life in bottles of Scotch.

You may argue that measuring my life with an alcoholic beverage would give short shift to my childhood years (at least the first 15 of them). That's true, but it's not so much the days of my life we are counting here, as much as the progress of my life as an adult, Scotch-drinking male. This pretty much renders childhood moot. In my early and mid-20's I drank whiskey, but never held on to a bottle long enough to say I was "accumulating" anything. I think the only thing I accumulated during those years were infectious agents that replicated inside the living cells of my hypogastric region (although only the most common little buggers, thankfully). My mid- to late-20's then was getting married, law school, and kicking off this thing that has become my career. All wonderfully exciting events, and each a journey in its own right, but it wasn't until I turned 30 that I really began to step into myself and feel out the kind of person I had become.

A person who drinks Scotch, that's who. At some point during that transition from an adult-in-training to a full-fledged member of society, I realized that I would always need to have a bottle of Scotch on my liquor shelf. Never mind that said liquor shelf is currently only my flat-screen TV box covered with fabric and turned upright (space constraints), or that the bottle of Scotch that currently sits on top is only $20… At least there's a bottle, and it isn't empty. Whatsmore, it hasn't even dipped below the non-respectable 5th of a bottle, at which point I'd feel obliged to finish it up quickly.

In fact, that's one reason why bottles of Scotch are a perfect way to measure the progress of your life. When I look over at my TV-box, er… liquor shelf, I feel a sense of pride that I've managed to grow out of my more impetuous years long enough to hold on to a bottle of alcohol, at least for more than a week. Even if it is the cheapest Islay Scotch available at Trader Joe's, it's still a sign that I've moved on from youthful overindulgence, at least as far as alcohol is concerned (and as my friend Neil, who introduced me to the varietal would agree, it's also a proof I have taste). Hell, we even have half a case of two-buck-chuck tucked away between the TV box and the stove. Next thing you know I'll be finding beer in the back of the fridge.

Proof of restraint aside, the other reason Scotch bottles are such a good measure of my adult life is that eventually the bottles will accumulate. Nothing to force with a spending spree at the liquor store... just something that will hopefully happen naturally. And as it happens, each bottle will earn its own story, potential bragging rights, or at least the opportunity to compare different tasting drinks.

When I was almost twenty and barely just beginning to acknowledge the adult world, I was invited to taste a couple of Scotches by the admired father of a then-girlfriend. Along with one of his younger coworkers, we retreated to the bookshelf-lined walls of his office. Like conspirators, we huddled around a particular bookshelf that had been converted into a shelf for various bottles, the names of which read like mysteries, histories and adventures. The power of a good Scotch collection is not something to underestimate!

I remember being in that office the better space of a half hour, which at that point was a record for conversing exclusively with grown-ups. I sat on a short plush stool, listening to my girlfriend's dad tell the stories of these extraordinary bottles he had accumulated , all the while sipping the subject of the tale. Being 20, I was thrilled to be drinking anything in public, but what I appreciated even more than getting buzzed in front of my girlfriend's parents was the glimpse into that man's life that our Scotch tasting allowed. Trust me, when someone shows you an ancient bottle of 12 year Scotch with a cut-out George Washington-esque picture of themselves taped over the logo, you know you're getting a taste, pun intended, of something that has mattered to that person on their own personal journey.

So in a way, the one bottle of $20 dollar Scotch on my TV-case turned bookshelf is a story in its own right. If nothing else, when I pour a glass for a future guest, I can at least say that I wrote a blog post about that very bottle. Barring the unexpected onset of alcoholism, I'll eventually expand my collection, and maybe someday I'll sit down with the lucky lad dating my own daughter, and share a few drams. Before I intimidate the hell out of him so that he never comes back, I'll have left him with a few good stories.

In the meantime, in all the space between now and that hypothetical moment many years in the future, there's plenty of time, and hopefully plenty of bottles to measure it with.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

april fools

On March 31st of 2011, I called my brother Ben at approximately 11:00 Pacific Time, which meant in Ohio it was already April Fool's Day. I didn't stop to think that his live-in girlfriend, Diana, would be woken up when I called. I didn't consider that they had an incredibly yippy dog that would probably wake up too, and then keep them both awake with its incessant barking. I didn't even consider that my planned joke was so ridiculous that Ben would never believe it unless he was half asleep... Okay, maybe I did consider that last one before I woke him up at 2 am to tell him the aliens had finally made contact.

It was one of those happily rare walks home where I had left work late enough that the streets were deserted. Because San Francisco lacks the foot traffic of New York, where I lived for several years, it's also a little scarier at night. One of the things you learn to appreciate about people out and about at 11 pm on a weekday (which New Yorkers surely take for granted) is that you rarely feel uneasy, even in some of the sketchier neighborhoods. In fact, I think sometimes crime is worse in the "safer" neighborhoods where everyone is tucked away for the evening by 8 or 9, but that's the subject of another blog post that I'll likely never write, so you'll have to figure it out yourself. Either way, I rarely feel afraid walking from downtown to Nob Hill at night, due to the large number of insane people who are always nearby.

It might help to understand that here in San Francisco, what we lack in numbers, we make up for in crazy. As Chris Rock brazenly but confidently asserted, "Yeah, I said it!" We might not have the all-hours crowds of New York, the 24 hour economies of Tokyo or Osaka or the comforting gas-lit streetlamps of Cincinnati, but if I were to be assaulted at night by some thug on the downtown streets of San Francisco, I feel confident that as soon as I started to scream for help, at least half a dozen other figures, slumped in doorways or wandering the empty streets, would begin to yell or scream themselves. Whether out of anger, empathy or annoyance, the cadre of crazies would doubtlessly begin to rise up out of their sleeping bags and cardboard boxes, turning down the NPR on their hand-cranked radios or closing the Kafka novel, and try to figure out what all of the ruckus was about.

As a result, I felt emboldened. In a way, calling Ben in the middle of the night for the ultimate April Fools joke, was my own personal SF crazy person moment. To the casual observer, I would certainly qualify: literally shouting "Oh my God, oh my God!" into the phone. I continued to shout until Ben was up and thoroughly disoriented. Then the icing on the cake... "Turn on the TV!"

What was I thinking, yelling at the top of my lungs, as I trekked uphill through the streets of downtown? To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced madness hadn't temporarily(?) taken hold. "They've arrived Ben, they've arrived!" I screamed. I might have added something about how they were talking to Obama... "right now!", but I had worked myself into such a frenzy by that point that my memory is foggy.

As a way of background, it's very important to understand here that my brother Ben is the ultimate April Fools participant. His past successes, of which there have been many, probably have something to do with the fact that he's a good planner, and that he's determined to follow through. It follows naturally, I think, that his Halloween costumes are usually top-notch. He had fooled me the year before, in fact, by telling me rather hysterically that Diana, his girlfriend, was pregnant. It wasn't until I had suffered a minor heart-slash-panic attack that he began to laugh and told me it wasn't so. I think that my own forced hysteria about the "aliens landing" was do-able not because I had temporarily gone insane, but out of my desire to show him that two could play the "everything-is-more-believable-when-you-say-it-in-a-panicked-voice" game.

"What, Aaron? What are you talking about?" He started to ask, before I shouted "Oh my God!!!!" into the phone with such urgency that I must have woken up Diana, since he had to briefly explain to her that no, in fact no one died, but it was quite possible that the aliens had landed.

I think when he finally got the TV on, I knew that I had won. I wanted to make sure I said "April Fools" before he realized he'd been had, so I yelled it into the phone as soon as he confirmed that the emergency White House broadcast was not, in fact, on every channel. Afterward, I cracked up nonstop for the next five minutes. At some point he hung up the phone.

Now it's one year later. The emotions, of course, are mixed. At the time, he vowed revenge. I'm not sure if it was on his own behalf, or on behalf of Diana, who ended up getting three hours of sleep that night, right before a major meeting. Maybe it was because he was half-asleep, or maybe he hadn't heard me say "April Fools", but he ended up convinced that aliens in fact had made contact that night. If he hadn't spent most of the year in jail for calling the White House repeatedly, demanding to see the evidence for the "covered up alien landing", I would feel a little better about the whole thing. As it is, it's been 18 hours into April Fools day, and so far I haven't heard a thing.

At the same time, if they give him access to a phone, maybe he'll come up with something. Maybe he's become a crazy in his own regard, but spending the last eight months in and out of detention facilities has surely given him time to think up some doozies. To be honest, I can hardly wait.